In coming years, US President Barack Obama will decide whether to deploy a new class of weapons capable of reaching any corner of the earth from the United States in under an hour and with such accuracy and force that they would greatly diminish America’s reliance on its nuclear arsenal.
Called Prompt Global Strike, the new weapon is designed to carry out tasks like picking off Osama bin Laden in a cave, if the right one could be found; taking out a North Korean missile while it is being rolled to the launch pad; or destroying an Iranian nuclear site – all without crossing the nuclear threshold.
In theory, the weapon will hurl a conventional warhead of enormous weight at high speed and with pinpoint accuracy, generating the localised destructive power of a nuclear warhead.
The idea is not new: Former US President George W Bush and his staff promoted the technology, imagining that this new generation of conventional weapons would replace nuclear warheads on submarines.
Russian leaders complained that the technology could increase the risk of a nuclear war, because Russia would not know if the missiles carried nuclear warheads or conventional ones.
The idea “really hadn’t gone anywhere in the Bush administration”, Defence Secretary Robert M Gates said on ABC’s This Week.
Obama himself alluded to the concept in a recent interview with The New York Times, saying it was part of an effort “to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons” while insuring “that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances”.
The Prompt Global Strike would be mounted on a long-range missile to start its journey toward a target. It would travel through the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that it would have to be shielded with special material to avoid melting. Its designers note that it could fly straight up the Persian Gulf before making a sharp turn toward a target. The Pentagon hopes to deploy an early version of the system by 2014 or 2015.